Nine years since I was last here, I'm back in South Sudan, the world's newest nation. Part of the work I am doing here, with our team, is to implement the Charter on Inclusion of People with Disabilities in Humanitarian Action in our emergency response in the country.
May 2017 marked the first anniversary of the Charter. This anniversary was the occasion to increase UK mainstream NGOs support for the Charter and to show how vital it is for organisations and states to endorse it.
Handicap International plays an important role in urging organisations to endorse the Charter. For this first anniversary, with CBM UK, we organised a special event attended by 45 humanitarian actors at Westminster, in partnership with the UK Department for International Development. Five organisations endorsed the Charter during the event.
The Director of DFID's Conflict, Humanitarian and Security Department (CHASE), Beverley Warmington, chaired the event and reiterated the UK Government's commitment to push the rights of disabled people and make sure no one is left behind in areas of armed conflict or disasters.
As a charity uniquely specialised in supporting people with disability living in crises, Handicap International also has to ensure the commitments made are turned into concrete action. This is why we are also helping the endorsing organisations on the ground to implement the Charter. And this is part of what we are doing here, in South Sudan.
I know that the Charter on Inclusion of People with Disabilities in Humanitarian Action may seem a little bit abstract in the eyes of many living far away from crises. This is why I want to take the opportunity of my mission in South Sudan to share my experience and show why it is so important for organisations to sign the Charter and the vital change it is making in the lives of people with disability living in crises.
South Sudan is a nation affected by conflict and a food crisis. Over 3.7 million people are displaced either inside South Sudan or to neighbouring countries due to conflict, starvation or a combination of the two. 5.5 million people are food insecure. At the same time, the government is working hard to build this nation.
So while Handicap International's teams are responding to the immense needs caused by the conflict and the food crisis, we are also working alongside the government and local civil society to ensure people with disabilities can achieve their rights and have access to sustainable services when peace returns to South Sudan.
I spent one of my mornings with our outreach team working in camps across Juba, the capital city. These camps house tens of thousands of people that have fled their homes due to hunger, conflict or in search for services that are only available in the capital city.
Meet Chang. He was severely beaten by a group of youths last year, and was paralysed from the waist down. He spent a year in the hospital in the camp we visited this morning, and it was there that our local outreach team met him. John, our rehabilitation worker, initially provided Chang with rehabilitation while in hospital. Today, our team continues to support Chang in the tent he calls home, with psychosocial support to overcome the trauma he has faced, and rehabilitation to make him stronger.
This is Mary, she can barely see due to severe visual impairment. During the day, Mary is able to get around the camp with the white cane our local team has given her, but at night, due to the uneven and narrow pathways, she is reliant on a caregiver to help her do even basic things like go to the toilet in the communal latrines on the other side of the camp. This dependency on others is very isolating, so our local psychosocial worker visits her regularly to help break the cycle of loneliness and ensure she has access to essential services like referrals to the local health centre when she recently had some health problems.
Vulnerable people face many challenges in South Sudan.
I heard horror stories about disabled people being left behind when their families fled the fighting. John, a man with polio, told me he told his family to flee without him, as he was worried the whole family would be targeted by the fighters if they had to slow down for him to keep up.
In the camps and in the community - the threat of gender-based violence is constant, uneven and narrow pathways make it difficult for people with mobility or visual problems to move around, latrines are inaccessible. Information about services isn't always communicated in such a way for people who can't hear to get the messages, families are separated and many people are traumatised by their experiences.
In addition to our work in Juba, our flying team of specialists travels far and wide across South Sudan to respond to urgent needs of the most vulnerable people.
Handicap International, through a network of local community mobilisers, rehabilitation specialists and counsellors, identifies vulnerable people, provides direct services such as rehabilitation and psychosocial support, refers people to other actors for other services such as support to survivors of rape, access to food rations and health services, and works with other actors to make their services and facilities more inclusive and accessible. We've started to make progress, but there is so much more to be done!
The Charter on Inclusion of People with Disabilities in Humanitarian Action has the potential to end a great injustice for disabled people. People with disabilities need to be included in planning and delivering humanitarian aid.
We will continue to work tirelessly to ensure the Charter is put into practice and that no one is left behind in humanitarian crises.
(Some names in this article have been changed)
All images © Handicap International